Int J Biol Sci 2012; 8(8):1121-1129. doi:10.7150/ijbs.4866 This issue


Why Would Plant Species Become Extinct Locally If Growing Conditions Improve?

Koen Kramer1✉, Rienk-Jan Bijlsma1, Thomas Hickler2, Wilfried Thuiller3

1. Alterra, Wageningen University and Research Centre, PO Box 47, 6700 AA Wageningen, Netherlands;
2. Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre, Department of Physical Geography, Goethe-University Frankfurt, Frankfurt am Main, Germany;
3. Laboratoire d'Ecologie Alpine, UMR-CNRS 5553 Université J. Fourier BP 53, 38041 Grenoble Cedex 9, France.

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Kramer K, Bijlsma RJ, Hickler T, Thuiller W. Why Would Plant Species Become Extinct Locally If Growing Conditions Improve?. Int J Biol Sci 2012; 8(8):1121-1129. doi:10.7150/ijbs.4866. Available from

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Two assumptions underlie current models of the geographical ranges of perennial plant species: 1. current ranges are in equilibrium with the prevailing climate, and 2. changes are attributable to changes in macroclimatic factors, including tolerance of winter cold, the duration of the growing season, and water stress during the growing season, rather than to biotic interactions. These assumptions allow model parameters to be estimated from current species ranges. Deterioration of growing conditions due to climate change, e.g. more severe drought, will cause local extinction. However, for many plant species, the predicted climate change of higher minimum temperatures and longer growing seasons means, improved growing conditions. Biogeographical models may under some circumstances predict that a species will become locally extinct, despite improved growing conditions, because they are based on an assumption of equilibrium and this forces the species range to match the species-specific macroclimatic thresholds. We argue that such model predictions should be rejected unless there is evidence either that competition influences the position of the range margins or that a certain physiological mechanism associated with the apparent improvement in growing conditions negatively affects the species performance. We illustrate how a process-based vegetation model can be used to ascertain whether such a physiological cause exists. To avoid potential modelling errors of this type, we propose a method that constrains the scenario predictions of the envelope models by changing the geographical distribution of the dominant plant functional type. Consistent modelling results are very important for evaluating how changes in species areas affect local functional trait diversity and hence ecosystem functioning and resilience, and for inferring the implications for conservation management in the face of climate change.

Keywords: plant species, climate, biogeographical models